You Are Sentenced to a Term of Hard Reading: Meeting Ignorant Actions with Books

I rarely delight in the punishment of minors, but the news that a group of teenagers who vandalized a historic site with swastikas were sentenced to a term of hard reading left me thrilled.

Prosecutor Alex Rueda’s idea is an inspired one: instead of tarring the teens, she sought to reconstitute them by addressing the roots of their vandalism—their ignorance about the weight of the symbol they’d used, and about the significance of the site they defaced. To answer for their errors, they have to visit the United States Holocaust Museum, as well as read books by authors of color and Jewish writers, and they have to write essays showing what they learned from these excursions.

This is less a punishment than a gift.

Thinking back to the foolish things I’ve said and done out of ignorance—not properly understanding privilege until well into grad school; voting for Bush—my mistaken courses have always been corrected via reading. For me, it was Dreams From My Father and Standing Again at Sinai; for Rueda’s teens, it’s set to be Native Son and Cry, Beloved Country. These are all titles that anyone would benefit from reading through, and all the better if such titles wind up uprooting misconceptions or transforming the ways we interact with others.

Imagine if certain presidents had to undergo a reading-and-writing assignment every time they said something clearly ignorant, such as that refugees pose a risk to American citizens, or that Chicago is a war zone.

Imagine if certain press secretaries and spokeswomen were assigned titles on the objective meanings of words like “fact,” or complex tracts on epistemology and rhetoric, every time they knowingly distorted the truth.

Imagine if those who hit women, or who vote against upholding the Violence Against Women Act, had to push through lengthy reading lists that included the stories of those impacted by such decisions every time they made such thoughtless decisions.

Imagine if, before voting on nominees to massively influential government positions, congresspeople had to read books about the significance of those roles, and about the dangers that come from not treating them with due gravity.

There are books that can be prescribed for all instances of thoughtlessness, all acts of incidental cruelty, that we encounter—and those of us who have ourselves been changed by books, or by long periods of learning, know that titles that are actively engaged do have the power to transform people. That’s even more true for young people still deciding who they are—The Color Purple, introduced at the right moment, stands to modify a young person’s path. Make them more feminist. More intersectional. More empathetic.

Criminal justice reform discussions often find one side arguing for curbing prison “privileges,” like education for the incarcerated, even though education is known to reduce instances of recidivism. There’s a direct correlation between empowerment-through-knowledge and lowered likelihoods of illegal activity.  It is no less than brilliant to rush ahead, find those at risk of crossing lines, and thrust books into their hands that present them with better options.

For sending a few momentarily irresponsible teens in a better direction, Alex Reuda is my hero. I hope it doesn’t sound too naive or optimistic to guess that those teenagers will someday consider her one of theirs as well.

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